A French friend was struggling to enunciate the verb that describes what goes on in her laboratory/office. “Oh, research” I reply. She was making the sounds of the word’s component letters, but with her French accent and lack of familiarity with English phonemics, it all came out wrong. I told her, “think of a Donkey. Donkeys go, ‘HEE-haw,’ now go ‘REE-search.'” She giggled, felt a little embarrassed, but she nailed it and has has never had a problem with it since. This got me thinking about how I pronounce words. “Research” is not a word I say often, but I was messing about with it, and it dawned on me that I say “ree-search,” “ruh-search,” and “rih-search” interchangeably. I found it baffling that I would say one word three ways, yet always be understood. Obviously if a there was a separate word pronounced “ruh-search,” which meant, lets say, “to defenestrate your mom,” I would be able to say “research” while never accidentally suggesting the possibility that I would want to toss your mother against the nearest single-pane.
Of course most of us do not learn “proper pronunciation” whatever that is. We learn to say the words well enough to be understood and then are left to our own devices, probably not corrected for the majority of our phonemic missteps beyond the age of eleven or so. While this works and it’s all fine and good, it has the problem of really fucking up my spelling. It seems I only semi-memorized how to spell words, I say them in my mind as I type them and my brain comes up with letter combinations that best match what I remember and how I say it. When I read my spelling errors aloud, the word reads precisely how I would say it.
My sociolinguistics class touched upon the British solution to this problem, Received Pronunciation. Of course the British would come up with a name for their “standard” dialect that invokes an image of God handing Standard British English on a silver platter to a horde of Druids, which is probably what the British thought they were doing with their language as they handed it to the teeming masses of India, Belize, and wherever else they’ve slammed down their linguistic stamp. Fortunately this gave the world the gift of Indian women with crisp chipper English accents, which I find infinitely delectable.
America lacks the stark pronunciation politics, and the strong accents of the British Isles. Sure New Yorkers mock the dulcet tones of Sarah Palin, Larry the Cable Guy, and many from Appalachia and the Deep South (I bet those folk have their own linguistic pet peeves, but I wouldn’t know), but people are not judged as harshly for their regional accents as the Brits. I recall the Beatles not paving over their Liverpool accents being a big deal back home. One a related note, I met a guy in the Airforce who was from Podunk, Midwest who says the military is rife with guys, like him, from tiny towns in the middle of nowhere, with strong local accents. When they get in the military, they try to sound like everyone else. This is why, I imagine, military guys tend to have a particular accent.
In a similar vein, the Television networks adopted an accent seemingly devoid of regional features for our newscasters and actors. I have mixed feelings about this. I believe the “TV accent”, or “General American,” as Wikipedia calls it, is eroding the local American accent. New York is famous for our accents, watch any New York movie or TV show from the 60’s and 70’s and you’ll see what I mean. While still you hear local New York accents, they are not as strong or as varied as they used to. Maybe I am looking back on the past with rosy shades, but I wish I had some strong New York accent. I grew up talking like most of the people on the TV, and it seems most people I know sound the same way. I find my accent flat, devoid of the rhythmic tones you find among the among the Irish, the Scottish, or the glorious accents of the West indies. I wish my voice moved up and down in melody, but it does not. I love my words, but I wish they had a more musical nature to them.